A cricket career that spans twenty years and consists of ninety three tons at the highest level of the game is like a sumptuous buffet. If any one particular dish – a hundred in this case – doesn’t suit your taste buds, there is always the next one to savor. There are the classic cuisines – ground out in the gruesome Test arena – and the fast food variety ala the spectacular double ton earlier this year.
People can take their pick as per their whims and fancies. Some would fancy a ton made incidentally on their birthday or marriage anniversaries or job promotions, and would have no qualms in saying that maybe it was just the Little Master’s way of wishing them. Others would remember most the innings they witnessed not from the confines of their dressing room but in the stadiums of their respective cities, where the Indian team might have been touring. Speaking from personal experience, even students pick and choose – the one that enlightens their moods so much that the exam next day goes very well, is the best hundred.
Very recently, Sachin Tendulkar pronounced as his best the hundred he scored immediately after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. The Test match was played at Chennai and against England, his 103 not out allowed India to chase down a massive 387-run target. You can almost immediately see the reasoning why he believes so: in 2008, the country witnessed the scariest terrorist attack in its history and hailing from the same city, he is bound to feel satisfied that an Indian win on the back of his hundred somewhat soothed the people of Mumbai, parched from all the hurt.
But there is another reason - valid only in cricketing terms and if one can say so, not based on sentiment. Throughout his career, critics have often questioned his ability to take India over and across the winning line. The likes of Ricky Ponting and Brian Lara stood ahead because Sachin hadn’t scored a match winning hundred in the fourth innings of a Test or whilst chasing down a target in ODIs. To some extent these absurd allegations were true, but only in terms of statistics. For such innings were truly missing from his arsenal of records, though that doesn’t mean he is a lesser batsman in any sense of the word.
However, think of it from the player’s point of view: he is regarded one of the best batsmen – if not the best – to play the game and has on umpteen occasions set up a chase for his team or played a great hand in the first innings of a Test, again setting up the game for his mates. Cricket after all is a team sport, and not unless an individual’s efforts are backed up by his mates, they will not win as a unit. The last time any one remembered such a match-winning innings from him was almost a decade prior to his efforts in 2008. We know it better as the Desert Storm.
In that sense, 2008 was a landmark year for the Indian batsman. Earlier in the year he had scored a ton in the first final of the CB series and just so that his detractors take note, that innings came in a successful run-chase. Combined with the hundred in Chennai ten months later, it is evident that he paid back a full reply to any disparaging comments that had come his way over the years. But at this juncture is the need to question: is the best cricket he played to be judged against hollow criticism?
The answer is no, for his genius transcends victory or defeat. How many times have we visited the stadiums wondering that our trip be made worthwhile with a century from his blade, so what if India loses? If we have to go to work, we wish he plays a swashbuckling innings that can be caught on television before scurrying off to our offices, never mind what the remaining players dish out. Students preparing for exams take breaks that coincident with the time period when Sachin is at the crease, and they keep praying that his stay is considerably long. Why, even Pakistani fans pray first for a win for their team and then a hundred from him!
Point is, if we take out the pressures of victory and loss from the equation and measure his innings’ worth purely in terms of their cricketing genius, one is afraid even the Master himself may have read their value wrong. There is no denying his 2008 Chennai hundred was a top notch innings, but talking of victory, it was actually Virender Sehwag who had set it up on the fourth evening. Compare that to his 136 against Pakistan in 1999 and people will remember the tears they shed when he fought through severe back pain and some excellent spin bowling by Saqlain Mushtaq, yet fell just ahead of the finish line. Did any of the English bowlers posses such guile and craft? Could they have put the remaining Indian batsmen under the same pressure even in a hundred years as did Wasim Akram and company that afternoon some nine years ago?
Back then he was considered to be in pristine touch, so what of the double ton procured in Sydney in 2003? The runs had been flowing in a trickle throughout the tour, his favorite cover drive proving to be his downfall on more than one occasion. What does he do? Cut out the scoring on the off-side and bide out his time until the runs start coming with ease again. As much as pressure and conditions, doesn’t form come into the equation? When the mind is pulling you in a different direction than you want it to go, when the footwork isn’t as nimble as the rest of the batsmen and when the willow just won’t listen to the commands you send out, scoring 241 runs in such an environment is the most enviable job on the planet.
It is an endless debate this, for a hundred arguments and counter-arguments can be deliberated over all the runs he has scored. Are the runs scored early on in his career on bouncy Perth tracks or hostile English conditions against bowling attacks better than any in world cricket today any less? Is the half-century in his maiden Test series scored with a bloodied nose not worth savoring again and again, and then again? Or, the 98 in the 2003 World Cup amidst the media frenzy building up for more than a year, and the stamina displayed in scoring a first double hundred in ODIs not proof enough of his insatiable hunger for runs?
Point is, when you are spoilt for choice in a mouth-watering buffet, post-dinner it is indeed tough to pin-point the most delectable offering.